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WVU basketball: Mountaineers not quite there, but close

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The easy thing to do following Saturday's loss to No. 11 Oklahoma State would be to point out West Virginia has lost 15 straight games to ranked teams and still hasn't beaten a team above the Mountaineers in the Big 12 standings.

Neither will change with tonight's 7 p.m. home game against Texas.

It would be easier, though, to acknowledge the obvious. WVU is frustratingly close and can't explain why it can't get any closer or why things went the way they did at the end of the 73-72 loss to the Cowboys.

"I don't know," coach Bob Huggins said. "I don't know why the ball didn't go in or why we didn't tip it in. If the ball goes in, we're sitting here talking about how far we've come. We got it at the rim with the guy who's finished more goals at the rim than all the other guys on the team put together. We got what we wanted."

True, except a way to change the conversation about these Mountaineers, winners of two in a row before point guard Juwan Staten's layup missed with a second to go and gave WVU another loss to a team with a number beside its name. Markell Brown's 3 for Oklahoma State with 11 seconds to play made sure that WVU's last win over a ranked team was against Georgetown in January 2012.

"Think about what they did," guard Eron Harris said. "They hit the shot to win the game.

"We missed the shot. That's it. We're right there."

By just about every meaningful statistical measurement, this team is better than last year's team, but the results in the biggest games are the same. Those might be different if not for a 3-4 record in games decided by five or fewer points. Two of those losses came against ranked Gonzaga and Oklahoma State while a loss to ranked Wisconsin was close late and ended with a seven-point margin.

In the 10 losses to ranked teams since the start of last season, a span for which most of this team has been together, five were by one, one, three, four and seven points.

"Once again, we lost a game that we had," guard Eron Harris said. "We almost had it and this was a big game. Everybody sees that we can beat these teams. We can beat these teams. We almost beat Wisconsin. We almost beat Purdue. Every game that's a big game, it seems like we've almost had it, but there are little things we're not doing."

Two little things proved large against the Cowboys, large enough to steer the conversation away from how good the Mountaineers have been in winning five of six and keep it on familiar talking points.

WVU defended Markell Brown's game-winning 3-pointer with 11 seconds to go, that coming after and before Staten missed layups. One WVU defender jumped out of the way when Brown offered a pump fake. Another could only put his hands straight up to deter Brown, who had missed his first three 3-point attempts of the game.

"He made a good shot," Staten said. "You have to give them credit for that."

Less praise could be heaped upon what happened a few minutes earlier. Oklahoma State took a 67-62 lead on Marcus Smart's 3, but WVU tied the score on a 3 from Terry Henderson and a layup by Staten. The Cowboys beat WVU down the floor after Staten's score and freshman Nathan Adrian fouled Kamari Murphy. He made his first free throw and missed the second, but Adrian and the rest of the Mountaineers didn't box out Smart, who scooped up the rebound and scored for a three-point lead.

Once more, the Mountaineers were close, certainly close enough to prove and to even believe they are good enough to play with and beat better teams this season. In that regard, they really don't need to win one of those games to convince themselves of that.

In reality, that win is a necessity for their prosperity, to say nothing of their mentality.

"It would definitely be a confidence-booster and give us the confidence to go out there and keep beating these teams," Harris said. "I think something people aren't thinking about is maybe some people aren't used to winning, aren't used to being the guy that won the big game or the team that won the big game. Some people are scared to be great like that.

"That's a hump we need to get over. It's a mental thing. At the end of the day, can you be as confident as you are at the beginning of the game? In big games, are you as confident as you are in smaller games? I think that great players aren't scared to be the winner."

Texas (12-4, 1-2) ended a two-game losing streak with Saturday's win against Texas Tech. The Longhorns are one of the three teams WVU has beaten since joining the Big 12 last season. They're No. 53 in the RPI - 15 spots higher than WVU - and beat Vanderbilt, Temple and North Carolina in non-conference play.

Texas ranks No. 7 in the 10-team Big 12 in scoring (77.8) and eighth in shooting (44.3 percent) and defensively ranks ninth in points allowed (71.4) and last in 3-point percentage allowed (35.6).

"If we can get a big win that we've been working for, it can take us to another level mentally, over the top mentally, and you're going to see a new team once we do get that win," Harris said. "The good thing about our conference is every game is going to be a big game."


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